E58 The Yokai behind Pokemon
Show Notes for episode 58 of our Podcast – The Yokai behind Pokemon.
Pokemon is a world wide phenomenon which was first thought up around 1989 by Pokemon executive director Satoshi Tajiri when the Game Boy was released. And the item behind Pokemon came from a popular hobby of Tajiri’s which was insect collecting. This developed and ultimately became the game of Pokemon we know of today. A game where you are tasked with going and trying to collect all of the different Pokemon in the area you live in.
However, I wanna look into the inspiration of some Pokemon today and not into the history of Pokemon or the man behind it. They I feel will one day be covered by us, honestly the more episodes we do, the more we realise we want to talk about and finding time to do it all.
Now there are some which I wanted to include, but I didn’t want to have to chop them down to their barebones and so I shall briefly mention them so we may come and give them an episode to themselves later in our show.
So when we look at Vulpix we see it has only 6 tails, and when it evolves into Ninetails, it has… ninetails….
This links to the Kitsune in that these creatures can grow up to ninetails in total. And they can act as a way to show how old, wise and powerful they are.
Kitsune additionally, much like other Yokai such as the Tanuki are known as shapesifters, almost always taking on the guise of a woman. However, when they do so they often find it difficult to hide their true selves, as they cannot transform their tail. And we can see this evidently in the anime with the Pokemon Zorua when they transform into certain characters from the show.
But that is the taster for Kitsune. There are witches associated with them, there are Fox-Weddings, and many many tales surrounding them. But they deserved time to themselves, so for now I just wanted to say the most obvious things that relate to their Pokemon link.
So listeners, please be patient until the Kitsune episode.
Now this next one is known as Castform, and it can take several appearances depending on the weather at the time, from sun, to rain, to snow. It is thought they are based off the teru teru bōzu, which are a kind of handmade doll constructed from white paper or cloth often hung outside of a persons window from string. You apparently can find this more often on the houses of farmers.
These items are said to hold the magical powers of bringing good weather and even being able to stop or at least prevent for a time a rainy day from occouring. The name here being constructed of teru, which is a verb describing sunshine and bōzu meaning monk. So Shine Shine Monk is the translation of these items. These items became popular in the Edo Period when children wanting good weather would make them the day before chanting to them, fine weather priest, please let the weather be good tomorrow.
If the teru reru bōzu should fail, they would then have a sake libation poured over them and then be thrown in the river to be washed away.
There are also those who would hang them upside down, as a way of praying and hoping for rain.
Now for this next cat Pokemon called Meowth, I suggest you head on back to Episode 40 and the Folklore of Cats as this one relates to the Maneki Neko for one, but also another Yokai cat that we didn’t talk about on that episode so we will mention it now.
First as a reminder, the Maneki Neko is the good luck cat, with art work for Meowth showing it with its raised beckoning hand and coin in the centre of its forehead. These cats dolls which you can buy if you remember come in various colours to signify different things.
Red is for relationship success and illness prevention, black keeps evil at bay, gold is for money, green for health, blue for academic success and even pink for help with love.
But the other Yokai it could link to is that of the Bake Neko, sometimes called the Monster Cat or Vampire Cat. They say that if a cat lives long enough they can transform into mischievous creatures, and can even gain the ability to control the bodies of the dead. Where I can say I don’t think Meowth ever did that, he is definitely a trickster type Pokémon with his association with Team Rocket, but another link to this Yokai is that the Bake Neko were also capable of human speech much like Meowth is. There is even a famous tale known as the Nabeshima no Bakeneko Sōdō, at times translated as the Vampire Cat of Nabeshima. But that is a longish tale which wil have its own Bonus Episode. We have a lot more Yokai and the Pokemon they inspired to get through.
So onwards we go.
Well, actually one last thing. Though not a Yokai in the slightest. There was once one the internet a famous cat known as Long Cat. Now sadly, I didn’t release until doing the research, Long Cat, who was known as Nobiko, has now passed away. They died last year in September at the age of 18, but I am pretty sure that the Gigantamax Version of Meowth is based off of Long Cat.
Turning our attention now to the next two, known as Growlithe and Arcanine. They are though based off the Koma Inu, the strange little lion statues that you can find at the entrance to temples in Japan. Entries for these two Pokemon state they are loyal, brave, trustworthy and are very protective of their territory. Much like the purpose of the Koma Inu is in protecting the inner shrine of many Shinto Shrines.
We can find their origins back in the Nara period (710–794, at least in Japan, they predate this in other areas of Asia. But when they arrived in Japan, like other places they always came in a pair. When you see them at temples one will have its mouth open, and the other will be closed. Back in the Nara Period, each one had a separate name. The opened mouth one being called Shishi (Lion) with the closed mouth one known as Komainu and at times had a single horn atop its head. Over time, they both came to be known as Komainu and shared the same appearance, saved for the difference in mouth which has remained until this day.
Originally they were only used indoors and were known as Jinnai Komainu (Shrine Inside Komainu) but later became to be used outside, the term for them then changing to Sando Komainu (Visiting Road Komainu).
Now we have a wolf type of Pokémon known as Lycanroc. It has three forms depending on the type of day, Day, Midnight and Dusk. Day form is calm, Midnight is vicious, with the Dusk form acting as a midway between the two of them. Now I know the name will make you think werewolf, but it is likely based from the Japanese Yokai known as the Okuri Inu. But in addition to that it also has a resemblance to an extinct species of Japanese wolf.
The Okuri Inu at times can be nice as well as vicious, mimicking the midnight and day forms of the Pokémon.. For instance, they will follow you in the mountains at night, and should you stumble they will pounce and devour you. If you need to you can rest, but don’t look too tired or that again will cause them to attack.
The same creatures, calmer side can be seen from a book entitled the Chiisagata-gun Mindanshū, Collection of Stories from the Chiisata District. This tells the story of a woman from Shioda who was to give birth, heading to her parents house to do so she falls into labour on the way and Okuri-Inu gather around her. The scared woman told them that if they were going to eat her then to do so right then. But instead they protected her from all the other wolves upon the mountain. Finally, with the husband reunited with his wife, he fed them red rice, reserved for auspoicious occasions. The book also details the area of Koumi, stating that Mountains Dogs (Yama-Inu) are either Okuri Inu or Mukae Inu, Okuri Inu protecting, with Mukae Inu attacking, which again links back to the to characteristics of the pokemon.
Next we have Dunsparse, based off the Yokai known as the Tsuchinoko.
This Yokai is a short, thick, snake-like creature. It was poisonous and can sometimes live with its head missing. It is a cryptid (an animal whose existence or survival is disputed or unsubstantiated, such as the yeti.) and we have reports of it being seen from the Edo Period. One story relates to the city of Kanazawa from 1807. There is a slope there where strange things occur. A man walking by saw something like a kind of pestle, but as thick as a mortar. Completely black, it let of a laugh, made a sound like thunder and disappeared. The man was then ill for a few days afterwards.
There was a Tsuchinoko boom now and then in history, most recently in the first few years of the 21st century. A farmer in Okayama Prefecture said he had found the remains of one, though examined and determined as a tiger keelback snake, the town quickly became identified with the Tsuchinoko and you can even get Tsuchinoko wine now from the area.
This bird known as Ho-oh in Pokemon, is based of the similarly named Hōō from mythology. Or what would at times be called a phoenix in western cultures, though they do differ somewhat.
This one however finds it origins in China and it said to come from the sun, their bodies containing 5 fundamental colours of black, white, red, yellow and green. All of which are seen on this Pokémon. The colours are said to represent the Confucian five virtues. Benevolence, Honesty and Uprightness, Knowledge, Faithfulness and Integrity and Correct Behaviour, Propriety and Good Manners. These birds can only appear in areas blessed with perfect peace, prosperity and happiness. Originating as far back as 8000 years ago.
Now the two here that have been chosen are known as Litwick and Klefki, but there are other Pokemon which link to what I am about the mention. These being creatures known as Haunted Houseware or Tsukumogami. In essence, household items and man made things turned into Yokai.
Tales form the Muromachi Period state that when an object reaches one hundred years it transforms, obtaining a spirit and deceiving people’s hearts, this is called the tsukumogami.
Another tale from a 16th century picture scroll goes as follows, there are tools and other objects that after 100 years change into spirits and deceive people. They are called tsukumogami. At the end of the year families discard old furniture, utensils and such, piling them up at the side of the road. Then at New Years, these household items transform in shape. Angry and the extravagant wealth of families. These tsukumogami should be treated with caution. This again is something with a lot of Lore surrounding it and deserves an episode over to itself. But I at least wanted to introduce the topic here in the episode.
This Pokemon, known as Drowzee, is based off of something known as the Baku.
These creatures are said to eat nightmares. We hear of it from as early as 834AD in poetry from China and here we have it described as something with the nose of an elephant, eyes of a rhino, tale of an ox and legs of a tiger. Mostly different to Drowzee in appearance, but he does eat dreams and have a trunk of sorts. If you suffered migraines, sleeping with the image of a Baku is said to have helped send you off into slumber. And a strange additional note, unsure why this is known about the Baku but its urine can melt iron and turn it into water. Interestingly, this Pokémon could also be based of a Tapir, and even Tapir are known as Baku in Japanese. But whether the name came for the animal or the Yokai first I don’t know.
Lotad, Lombre, Ludicolo are an interesting bunch and relate to something we have already talked of before, so head on back to Episode 43 where we talked about the Kappa. They are mischievous like the Kappa, and though the Kappa would try to steal your shirikodama if you were in water, these Pokémon like to tug on fishing lines from below the water. At least in the case for Lombre.
I feel the second evolution Lombre is the one most resembling a Kappa though, the first looking more like a lilly pad and the final evolution, at least in Alfredo’s opinion, look more like a sombrero wearing Pokémon.
Lickitung, like its name suggests is a Pokémon sporting a massive tongue, with entries about this Pokémon stating it likes to lick dirt off things to make them clean. This relates to the creature known as the Akaname (Filth Licker in English). It had red skin, as Aka means both ‘Red’ and ‘Filth’ in Japanese it particularly liked to lick all of the dirt and scum out of bathtubs.
Turning our attention to Mawile, we find its inspiration coming from the Futakuchi Onna, or Woman with two mouths.
This second mouth is hidden behind the long flowing hair on the back of their head. This other mouth can mumble to itself and the original mouth sometimes feeds constantly to try and satisfy the second one.
They are normal women transformed through bad karma, for giving attention purely to their children instead of also their step children. Should one of their step children die from neglect, 49 days later (the traditional amount of mourning in Japan) the spirit returns to inhabit the mother, giving her the extra mouth and an almost unstoppable hunger. One story states a step mother after 49 dies of her step child dying, was hit in the head with the back of her husband’s axe. The wound wasn’t deep, but eventually after not healing grew teeth and lips and began to chant ‘you must apologise.’
Others state it occurs when someone doesn’t live truthfully, always swallowing and repressing their words until one day the other mouth forms, this mouth unable to lie.
Entries for this Pokémon also agree with this as it says this Pokémon freezes foes with an icy breath nearly -60 degrees F.
One tale of the Yuki Onna states that two men caught in a terrible snow storm who seek shelter for the night. The younger of them Minokichi, awakens to see a maiden take the life from his older friend by blowing cold white smoke onto his face. Seeing Minokichi she says if he ever tell anyone of this she will kill him and then she disappears. Next year, he meets a woman called O-Yuki. They fall in love, marry and have ten children. One night, thinking of the past he tells his wife of his encounter with the Yuki-onna and so his wife reveals herself to have been that very creature, saying if it were not for there children sleeping close by she would have killed him there and then, and with that she then disappears into a white mist, dissipating through a smoke hole in the roof.
Whiscash is an intresting Pokémon as it is based of a Yokai that a previously didn’t know of until researching this episode. The creature in question being the Onamazu.
Entries for this Pokemon state, if a foe approaches it, it thrashes about and triggers a massive earthquake and this directly relates to the Namazu or Onamazu, which were giant catfish also capable of causing earthquakes.
They live underground, likely in caves or in the mud causing the earthquake. And our first association between the creature and earthquakes occurred in the area of Lake Biwa (a place we haven’t mentioned in a while).
One myth around the creature says the God Takemikazuchi (one of the sons of the fire god Kagutsuchi, who we have mentioned before). This god restrained a catfish underneath a stone to stop it causing earthquakes, but at times when he lets his guard down, the catfish will thrash about and an earthquake will occur once again.
A 1683 collection of stories called the Shin Otogi Bōko tells of the man known as Sogen a monk who steals money offerings and lamp oil left at his temple, after dying he is punished in hell. His soul returns later as a mysterious blue fireball near the temple. Much like Ghostly who is a floating head wreathed in flame.
Darumaka and Darmanitan gather their inspiration from the Daruma dolls you can find in Japan. Ok, so this one isn’t really a Yokai here but I wanted to include them none the less. The dolls themselves are based off Bodhidharma, who was the founder of Zen Buddhism.
The figurines have no arms or legs, as it is said Bodhidharma meditated facing a wall for nine years causing his arms and legs to fall off through atrophy. Also the figurines cannot blink as other legends say after he fell asleep during his nine year meditation he grew angry and so cut off his eyelids so he may never sleep again. The dolls eyes are blank when you buy them, you chose a goal or wish and paint the left eyes and once the goal is achieved you paint in the right eye.
Entries for Daruma say that when it sleeps, it pulls its limbs into its body reminiscent of Bodhidharma losing his. Its evolution Darmanitan also has a Zen mode it can turn into during battle which looks just like a Daruma Doll.
Next we have Snorunt, and actually it is a pre-evolution of Froslass we talked of earlier. Where she was based off the Yuki-Onna, this Pokémon is linked to the Yuki Warashi (Snow Babies) as well as the Zashiki-warashi as their pokedex entry states, ‘old folklore claims that a house visited by this Pokémon is sure to prosper for many generations to come.’
The Zashiki Warashi were a kind of spirit which when living in your home would bring you great fortune, but should they leave and move on to another home, then your fortunes would swiftly end, and could even lead to your death.
The Snow Babies when depicted, are often portrayed as red-cheeked children clad in the traditional straw-peaked snow jackets. Their jackets have a hood that comes up to a point so that the snow can’t accumulate, much like Snorunt does. The hood ties under the chin, and there are armholes that give freedom of movement.
We do have some stories surrounding these creatures, one of them being from Niigata prefecture.
Long ago there was an old, childless couple. They were very lonely, and wished desperately for a child. One snowy day, in order to distract themselves from their desolation, they went out into the new fallen snow and sculpted a snow child. Pleased with their creation, they went back inside.
That night there was a fierce blizzard. There was a knock and the door, and when they answered it the couple were shocked to see a bright, young child leap into their house. They were too overjoyed to question their good fortune, and welcomed the child into their hearts. They loved their snow baby, and vowed to raise it with affection.
The new family passed a wonderful winter together, but as spring neared the couple noticed that their child got slimmer and slimmer. They were terribly worried, and woke up one morning to find their child gone completely. Their hearts were broken, but there was nothing they could do.
Time passed, and soon it was winter again. On yet another storming snowy night, there was a knock at the door and the couple’s happy snow baby came bounding home again, fat and happy and red-cheeked. The couple realized that this was the spirit of the child they sculpted out of snow, could only stay with them through the winter.
This pattern repeated itself for many years, until one day the snow baby came no more. They never saw their child again. But the couple was content with what happiness the kami allotted them, and forever cherished the sweet memories of their snow baby.
And now the last one Celesteela, she is based of the character of Kaguya Hime from the Folktale of The Bamboo Cutters Daughter.
But that one I will make you wait for until next week, we may have just had a Folktale with the Tongue Cut Sparrow but this one relates to the Folktale of the Bamboo Cutters Daughter and I would love to tell it in full. So I am shuffling the order of episodes to make room for this next week, before we delved into something new. And something I am rather excited to dive into following this Folktale. It’s a part of Japanese History we haven’t really looked into really that much, but it involves Samurai, Oda Nobunaga, and the time of the Jesuit Missionaries.
Story Quote Notes
A nobleman named Abe no Yasuna goes out into the woods on his way to visit a shrine, and finds a hunter trying to kill a white fox. He sets the fox free and continues on his way.
Later, he encounters a beautiful woman – and eventually they fall in love and marry. They have a son name Dojimaru. His name will be Abe no Seimei later in life.
However – one day while out gathering flowers, her young son sees a white tail. In turns out, his mother was the white fox rescued by the nobleman.
She has to leave and return to the woods. She leaves behind these parting words:
Tazune kite miyo
Shinoda no mori no
If you miss me
Try visiting me
To the forest of Shinoda in Izumi
Look to the place with the kudzu leaves
(Special thanks to the Professor with this translation!)
Nuance here is she doesn’t want to leave, but she has no choice. So, the last line could also be: You may resent me.
A common theme of ghost stories is if the true nature was revealed, the yokai would need to leave and return to their previous home.
Urami could also be interprated as ‘to look at an ocean’ or ‘resentment.’
But there’s no kanji – so the meaning could be many different things. Here was just a couple of examples.
- Davidson, Z. (2017) “Kaibyo: The Supernatural Cats of Japan.” Oregon: Mercuria Press.
- Foster, M.D. (2015) “The Book of Yokai.” California: University of California Press.
- Yoda, H. and Alt, M. (2016) “Japandemonium: Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopaedia of Toriyama Sekien.”. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
- Yoda, H & Alt, M. (2008) “Yokai Attack: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide” Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd.
Header Image: Pokemon Sword and Shield from Nintendo.
Podcast Cover art from Pixabay.
Pokemon images taken from Bulbapedia.
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